Remember when many of us kept lists of names of lovers and friends who died of AIDS? Not long ago, I sat down and made a list of people I know -- some students, mostly educated professional people -- who are now a rent check away from living in their cars, or on the street. The list turned out to comprise a shockingly high percentage of the LGBT people I know -- a scary profile of the thin financial ice we're all living on. One name is an L.A. friend who was unemployed for a year, scratching along with temp jobs and selling some bits of jewelry and silverplate from her mom. She's a hardworking and courageous soul who left no stone unturned. But now her unemployment has run out, she has nothing left to sell, and expects to be evicted in the next 30 days. "I'll be looking for some bushes to sleep under," she said.
From Fat City to Tent City
Now and then, major media give us the latest cold figures on home foreclosures -- but they don't tell us much about the rest of the story. Some foreclosees are fortunate to camp with relatives or friends for a while, or live in their cars till the cars are repo-ed. But many go straight to the street. To see the real human face of what's happening, you have to step over the corporate media, who still believe (judging by the messages in their ads) that we're all living in Fat City. You have to go to the indie media or the BBC for honest reporting. Even YouTube coughs up some shocking coverage if you search under "homeless."
iPhone users: Click to watch
America's chronically homeless population is hard to nose-count, for obvious reasons. But the U.S. government is doing its best to hide what is really going on. In July the Bush administration trumpeted what they alleged was a "success story" -- that the number of chronically homeless had dropped by about 30 percent. But wait a minute -- these figures were from 2005 to 2007. How about giving us figures from after the mortgage meltdown last year? I'll betcha those new stats are through the roof.
The fact is, tent cities are popping up everywhere -- under overpasses, in secluded rural areas, abandoned commercial lots, wherever. The fact is, on the community level, more organizations and coalitions have been shocked into action on the problem, from the ACLU to the Colorado and Massachusetts Coalitions for the Homeless. Now and then, even a city government steps up to the plate. In California, Ontario opened a tent city on some vacant land near the airport -- only to be overwhelmed by out-of-town homeless people and scarcity of resources.
But the fact is -- most city governments still think they can make homeless people "disappear" by criminalizing them. The fact is, the problem is still explosively bigger than any attempted solutions.
And the fact is, we have our growing percentage of lesbian, gay, bi and transgendered faces among the homeless.
Unfriendly cities send their cops to war on the tent cities-- armed with laws that make it illegal to sleep anywhere outside of a bonafide home.
They cut up tents, confiscate possessions and shopping carts, beat people up, even seize people's kids and turn them over to Children's Services. Even in New Orleans, the city government heartlessly tried to close tent cities.
My question is: WTF -- where are these people supposed to go? Federal and state government officials are actually cutting jobs and sending jobs out of the country, instead of trying to create jobs. There aren't nearly enough shelters. City governments either outlaw food distribution by concerned organizations, or make it difficult for them by demanding that they get permits and pass food inspection. When they're finally arrested for "breaking the law" somehow, homeless people wind up in already overcrowded jails. Last but not least, their opportunity to vote and have policy input can vanish with their freedom.
Even the Presidential candidates have little say about the problem so far -- though they will certainly have to deal with the Tent City problem if elected.
With the U.S. moving backwards on this front, and nowhere for hundreds of thousands of people to go legally, what is the next stage? If little is done, it will surely be ugly. One Arkansas blogger, who is not impressed with the way Katrina homeless were treated by government over the long term, has this suggestion, which he is obviously making in a spirit of outraged irony: "Let's just cut to the chase and kill them. Form a committee to make up the rules, people with less than 500 dollars in money or assets......DEAD. Anyone not employed in the last 3 months unless they have a note from a certified doctor.....DEAD."
In the LGBT world, homelessness needs to get up on the radar screen in big flashing red letters. We have all heard about our homeless teens in big cities, and transgender people who have been chronically unemployed. But now their ranks are joined by growing numbers of LGBT adults who are former homeowners and professional people, including seniors who have fallen on hard times. It's as urgent an issue as AIDS.
With all the rampant homophobia out there, the homeless system is extra-hard on LGBT people. Especially when a gay man, or a lesbian couple with children, or a transgender person, finds that the only option for a shelter bed on a winter night is with an organization run by a right-wing church group. All the more reason why we need to ramp up our own range of homeless services. Getting off the street is a complicated process, once you've been there. The mean streets of America have a dreadful impact on people who have spent any time there -- emotionally, spiritually and physically. It takes a range of services and multiple steps if a person is going to make it all the way back.
Right now, our nationally available infrastructure is a drop in the bucket, compared to what's needed. Example: Los Angeles, where the Jeff Griffith Youth Center has 24 beds available for youth 18 to 24. This in a city where there might be 10,000 homeless LGBT young people on the streets on any given night -- teen drifters and runaways like the ones among my students when I taught in an LAUSD dropout program. A few other big cities also have small numbers of beds and services available for youth -- I've visited some of these centers while on book tour. But these too are a drop in the bucket. And these services are only for kids. What about the adult homeless? And what happens if you're gay and homeless in Oklahoma, or Idaho, where there aren't likely to be gay-friendly services within many hundreds of miles of where you live.
I'm getting tired of reading those glowing press releases that emerge grandly from LGBT press agencies now and then -- the ones that trumpet about the millions of dollars of pink money out there -- about the big corporations that value us as super-consumers. Back in the 1970s, when the gay movement really got under way, the expression "Fat City" was popular with Americans. Fat City was where many of us yearned to live after we came out. It was where some of us LGBT folks actually got to -- with the great job and the DINK lifestyle.
But those days are over. Some of those ex-consumers are sleeping in a Tent City now...or wishing to hell they could find one.